Incomplete realities

Posted: December 28, 2005 at 9:10 pm in people, politics

Responding to my End Times theory, Brian commented “Can we show that one reality is better than another? I hope so!”

I’ve been struggling on and off with this question of what makes one reality “better” than another for at least six years. In that rant (itself a follow-up to these thoughts on morality), I was struggling with whether being tolerant of other belief systems implied that I had to be tolerant of intolerant people. I said no at the time, and still believe that. But it’s essentially the same comparison of realities; in my reality, tolerance is a good thing, and in others, it isn’t, so who’s right? Which one is better?

Beemer’s comment in that six-year-old post was that “you’d be able to tell that Good was Good because Evil eventually annihilates itself when correctly applied.” Interestingly, I think this ties into the End Times discussion. In particular, I feel like Jofish’s comment about the tunnel vision of the End Times scenarios is key here. Intolerant, monocultural realities ignore other factors, which makes them susceptible to being overthrown or made irrelevant by outside influences.

Coincidentally, I recently started reading Seeing like a State. The author, James C. Scott, discusses why state-managed plans are doomed to failure if they do not take into account local customs. He makes the argument that the state, in its attempt to make its subjects “legible”, creates a simplified map of the world that only includes things that the state finds relevant (e.g. one’s income and deductions to the IRS). However, the power of the state leads to a peculiar inversion whereby the state attempts to impose its simplified map as reality onto its subjects. These attempts reliably fail because they do not take into account the true complexity and context of the “real”, localized world. The first chapter, available online, is a good overview of the concept as applied to “scientific forestry”.

Tying that back into the discussion of what makes one reality “better” than another, I wonder if realities that believe they are the whole truth, that think they explain everything, are equivalent to the state-based master plans in Seeing like a State. They are not necessarily “evil” as I originally posited, but by failing to take into account the true complexity of the world, they are thoroughly incomplete; they are like maps missing key aspects of the world. They will eventually be overthrown or made irrelevant (like the state-based plans) when they are brought into contact friction with the real world. At the risk of being political, the example Brian suggests is the neo-conservative “reality” that the Iraqis would welcome the U.S. Army with flowers and cheers colliding with the local reality of armed resistance.

So what makes one reality “better” than another? Realities that accept the fact that there are other realities are “better” because they recognize that they are merely tools. They are maps, necessarily simplified, because a map that is the same as reality is useless. They will cover some things, and not cover other things. Trying to force all realities to fit the map only leads to pain and suffering, as Seeing like a State documents.

Which brings me back to that several-year-old post I did on morality, where I ended up saying that “Other people do not have the right to tell me how to behave morally; conversely, I do not have the right to tell them either. ” They can’t impose their reality on me; I can’t impose my reality on them. Realities that seek to impose themselves are inherently unstable because they do not take into account local customs (other realities), and will eventually fall apart under that friction.

I don’t know. It’s a theory.

P.S. I just realized this can all be re-stated in terms of finite and infinite games. Realities that believe they are the One True Reality are a finite game, with fixed rules. Realities that accept other realities are infinite games, open to changing the rules. I think Carse said at his talk that the only evil he recognized was when a finite game attempted to subsume an infinite game, i.e. when one reality attempts to impose its viewpoint on all others. Interesting, but probably not surprising, that all of my influences say the same thing in different ways.


Coincidentally: This also ties back into the conversation I had with Brian, because we had talked about how certain things did not come to our attention until we were ready to recognize them. In this case, I first read about this book on Phil Agre’s red-rock-eater list (probably in this post where he reviews it), thought it sounded cool, bought it, but never even opened it. It sat on my bookshelf for years. This December, before my DC trip, I was out of books and my new Amazon order had not come in yet, so I flipped through the unread books on my shelf, and this one jumped out at me. Check out the back cover blurb:

“Why have large-scale schemes to improve the human condition in the twentieth century so often gone awry? James C. Scott analyzes diverse failures in high-modernist, authoritarian state planning … and uncovers conditions common to all such planning disasters. What these failures teach us, he argues, is that any centrally managed social plan must recognize the importance of local customs and practical knowledge if it hopes to succeed.” (emphasis added)

Wow. It ties perfectly into my thoughts about conflicting realities (the state’s reality vs. the local customs), about the importance of adapting the general to the specific, my thoughts on balancing control and autonomy in management, etc. And yet it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for years for me to start thinking about these issues. Is this coincidence? Fate? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly a bit weird.

2 Responses to “Incomplete realities”

  1. Random Stuff that Matters » Blog Archive » Seeing Like a State, by James C. Scott Says:

    [...] Stian Club Troppo discusses the “conservative approach” favored in Seeing Like a State and whether environmental conservation is a “conservative” cause Eric Nehrlich asks the question “Can we show that one reality is better than another? I hope so!” online. I also like his point “So what makes one reality “better” than another? Realities that accept the fact that there are other realities are “better” because they recognize that they are merely tools.” Future Mandarins puts the book into context in an incredibly long annotated bibliography of modernization and development criticism. [...]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Survival Is Not Enough, by Seth Godin || June || 2006 Says:

    [...] Until last weekend. I was looking for something to read, and my new Amazon order had not yet arrived, so I picked it up. It’s great. Really well-written and easy to read, and completely relevant to where I am right now in my thoughts. Another one of those right-time, right-place kind of reads. [...]

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